How this Auckland garden was transformed into a Zen Oasis

How this Auckland garden was transformed into a Zen Oasis

This Auckland garden was transformed from a bare slope into a Zen oasis

A bare slope in Auckland has been transformed into a calming Zen oasis with the wise use of some rocks, boardwalks and Stylish Japanese planting

This Auckland garden was transformed from a bare slope into a Zen oasis

In the year 2004 when Siew Ng relocated from Malaysia to New Zealand, her initial hope was for a house with a beautiful garden. “She said, In Malaysia we didn’t have very much landspace; most houses are terraced units,” she explained. “My garden were completely in pots over there. So when I arrived at New Zealand it was good to be able to do something I am very passionate about.”

It took a few years before she could realise her dream but now Siew and her husband, Chee Hong, have their idea of paradise. On a sloping site in the West Auckland suburb of Henderson, a Japanese Zen-style garden is filled with the maple trees Siew adores, as well as a set of meandering steps up the incline, ponds, a rockery, seats to take in views of the Waitakere Ranges and even a flat lawn for the couple’s cute little West Highland terrier, Sky, to play on.


The 650-square-metre property on a steep slope had virtually no garden when the couple bought it. “There were no plants at all and no access to the back. We had to climb up the steep slope without any steps,” Siew remembers. “After a few months I started to think about how to realise the potential of that area. At first I wanted to plant fruit trees and edibles up there.”

Solid clay soil made planting fruit trees very difficult so that idea was put on hold. In the interim, landscape designer Jules Moore of JM Landscapes drew up a plan for planting a range of lush subtropicals on the eastern boundary, which was duly implemented. However, the couple were undecided about what to do with the rear and western side of the site, so these remained untouched.


Finally, in 2015, after carefully considering what she wanted to do with the garden, Siew had her light-bulb moment. “I decided I wanted a Zen garden,” she says. “I love Japanese maple trees and really wanted to incorporate them into the garden so a Japanese-style landscape design seemed like a great idea.”

She again approached JM Landscapes, this time with a brief for a design that borrowed features from both traditional and modern Japanese gardens. “Siew wanted a space where she and Chee Hong could go and sit within the garden, with an appropriate plant selection that was simple and reflected the calming nature of a Zen space,” Jules says. “The garden also needed to provide access right around the whole property.”


Tackling the steep slope was not easy. A digger was needed to excavate the bank and a retaining wall was built to create a flat platform for the lawn. The clay soil and difficult access meant that establishing and mowing a grass lawn would be too difficult so artificial turf was used.

A series of macrocarpa-sleeper steps was built to provide access to a small space at the very top of the site. “The views are fantastic here,” says Jules. “We found the perfect macrocarpa slab to create a seat where Siew can enjoy that contemplative space.

“Next came the boardwalks across the site, also made of macrocarpa, but these were milled to 150mm by 50mm and stained to protect and enhance the wood. The 900mm-wide boardwalk is a zig-zag shape – essentially, three staggered boardwalks. This captures the essence of Zen which is all about slowing oneself down, being in the moment… so that when you walk, you stop, turn and contemplate the next turn, which slows you down, and so on.”

A zig-zag shape was also used for the steps linking the boardwalk to the driveway. Rocks were positioned to ‘naturalise’ the retaining walls and steps, and a ‘dry riverbed’ and ponds were built among the rocks.


Plants have been carefully placed to soften the hard landscaping with pockets of small bulbs popping up in spring and summer. A variety of groundcovers such as mondo grass, native scleranthus, thyme, rhodohypoxis and Armeria maritima ‘Pacific Giant’ “weave their magic in and out of the rocks”, says Jules. “Acacia ‘Limelight’ is used as an accent plant while the graceful Japanese maples give the garden an authentic Zen feel.”

Irises, helleborus and azaleas bloom at different times of year with further interest throughout the seasons created by contrasts in leaf size and shape. The delicate fronds of Elegia capensis and the shiny, round leaves of ligularia connect the new garden to the earlier subtropical planting while clusters of the dwarf hybrid Pittosporum ‘Golf Ball’, with its naturally rounded shape, add a contemporary twist.

Standout feature

Siew’s favourite spot is the seat at the top of her garden where she can sit and look at the Waitakeres and the farmland in the valley below. “I just love the way the steps climb up the hill and lead you into this fantastic space.”

She and Chee Hong also enjoy relaxing with a coffee or breakfast on their deck at weekends, before they start gardening. “We enjoy working in the garden – even weeding can feel very therapeutic. Every time our friends come around they say so many good things about the garden. They say they don’t have to visit Hamilton Gardens now, they can just come here,” she laughs. “We love it.”

Frequently Asked Questions

While dry landscape gardens are sometimes referred to as Zen gardens, it is more accurate to refer to them as karesansui. In Japan, this style of garden is often part of a Zen monastery, such as the famous Ryoan-ji in Kyoto.
Classical zen gardens were created at temples of Zen Buddhism in Kyoto during the Muromachi period. They were intended to imitate the essence of nature, not its actual appearance, and to serve as an aid for meditation.
Ryoan-ji Temple. Home to the most famous Japanese Zen garden in the world, Ryoan-ji Temple is located close to the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) in northwest Kyoto. The karesansui – dry landscape garden – is unlike any other garden you have seen, with 15 mystical rocks appearing to float in a sea of pure white sand.
A Zen Garden’s Purpose. The sole purpose of the gardens was to offer the monks a place to meditate Buddha’s teachings. The purpose of building and upholding the garden is to encourage meditation. This is something that you might use your own Zen garden for.
Japanese. While Zen gardens have been a fixture of Japanese aesthetics since the Muromachi Period (1336–1573), the purposes and meanings of these austere landscapes have been far less fixed, and indeed have changed somewhat since their first appearance as places for meditation in the Zen temples of medieval Japan.
A good summary of Zen Buddhism, one totally palpable and perceivable with all of our senses, is the rock garden, or as it is usually known, the “Zen garden.” As a practice, the Zen garden emerged in the 8th century CE, apparently in imitation of the Chinese gardens of the Song Dynasty.
These gardens are called karesansui gardens, which translates to dry mountain water. Pogue said rocks and gravel are used in the gardens to create an abstract scene of mountains and water. Experts agreed that zen gardens are one of the easiest types of Japanese gardens to create at home.
Zen gardens are intended for relaxation, meditation and contemplation. A special place is given to every plant, rock and the sand in an effort to create harmony, tranquility and balance. Nature is represented from a minimalistic point of view.
Both Yoga and Zen are commonly undertaken during meditation and in calming the heart. Zen, though, is thought to be a denomination of Buddhism. However, Yoga is almost regarded as a philosophy, not a religion. Zen focuses on meditation and a person’s daily attitude.
Size can vary; on a small property, a 12 foot by 18 foot rectangle may be appropriate. You can reduce your workload (which is significant) by settling for a smaller space.
Representing the elements is important when designing a Zen or meditation garden. Even if you do not believe in the healing energies of gemstones, gardening with crystals can add a decorative flair to beds and containers.
For centuries, monks in Japan have perfected the art of raking zen gardens to reach a meditative state. Now, people around the world build Japanese-inspired gardens and rake the gravel or sand into beautiful patterns. Start by learning how to rake a garden into the water drop design, one of the most common patterns.
While both arose partially as a reaction against the metaphysical excesses of the philosophical schools, Zen focused on awakening through monastic practice, while Pure Land focused on attaining birth in the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitabha through practices that were accessible to lay people.

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